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Local professor takes WNEC students to World Cup

Date: 6/28/2010

June 28, 2010.

By Chris Maza

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM -- Anyone who has been to the World Cup can tell you it is the experience of a lifetime.

But for a contingent of Western New England College (WNEC) students, it was more than that. It was a life-changing one.

Led by Curt Hamakawa, the director of the Center of International Sport Business and a sports management professor at WNEC, a group of 11 students made the journey to South Africa to witness the elite worldwide soccer tournament in person earlier this month.

For the students, there was not only the chance to watch soccer played at its highest level, but also to be exposed to world cultures in a very real way, touring Johannesburg, Rustenburg and Pretoria, watching matches and taking in the sights.

"To me there's a significant benefit -- besides the major sports spectacle -- of being exposed to the cultural and socio-economical differences between people in our world," Hamakawa said.

Hamakawa, a Wilbraham resident, started trips such as this two years ago when he took a group of students to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, using contacts he made over the years to make the trips a reality.

"I came form the US Olympic Committee after 17 years, so I thought I could leverage my contacts to expose the students to the behind-the-scenes operation of these events," Hamakawa said. "I think there's great value added to the college in these trips."

Maybe the most important part of the World Cup from an educational standpoint according to Hamakawa is the opportunity to be surrounded by different cultures and get first-hand experience in interacting with those cultures. That aspect of learning is something that simply cannot be done in a classroom.

"There's a real sense of a global village with people from all over the world," Hamakawa said. "To walk into the stadium and hear different languages being spoken, it was really a microcosm of the United Nations. I encouraged the students to get out there and talk to people and expose themselves to different cultures."

Students were also given the opportunity to meet with students pursuing high education in South Africa.

"They had a chance to meet some of (South African) college students when we stayed at Tshwane Univerisity in Pretoria and they proclaim that to be one of the highlights of the trip," Hamakawa said. "They had the opportunity to speak frankly and share ideas with their counterparts."

For others, the part of the trip that provided the most education was a visit to Soweto, a mostly black, impoverished area of Johannesburg that acts as a stark reminder of the affects of apartheid.

"All 11 students on the trip were white, so to go into a situation where they were the minority, for a lot of them it was the first time they had experienced anything like that," Hamakawa said. "It was eye-opening and a little uncomfortable. But I wanted them to know how it feels to be a minority. I think it was a good experience for all of us."

There the students were able to see first-hand the level of poverty some people still are forced to live in.

"We were able to go inside a dwelling and it was really sobering. The building was no more than 10-by-15," Hamakawa said. "There was no bathroom, no running water, not electricity and no toilet. They cooked with a propane stove, which is very dangerous.

"It really reinforced the notion of how fortunate and blessed they were with what they had. Everybody knows they should feel that way, but to see it up close was quite compelling."

Many of the students, at Hamakawa's encouragement, brought items such as WNEC hats, t-shirts and other memorabilia as well as other gifts such as soccer balls, all of which made them very popular among the children.

"As poor as they are, the kids were happy as can be," Hamakawa said. "It's amazing that while living in such impoverished conditions that they could be smiling and as happy as they were."

Hamakawa said he plans to conduct trips such as this every two years and stressed that they are open to students of all majors.

The next trip is slated for 2012 when a group will be on hand for the Summer Olympic Games in London. Hamakawa also hopes to lead excursions to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"I think we're going to do trips every two years because there's just so much planning and time that goes into it," Hamakawa said. "People have asked why we don't go to the Winter Olympics and maybe we will at some point, but on top of everything else, it falls in the middle of February during the semester and that's a lot of time to miss."